#Flegs: They haven’t gone away you know…

There was a lot of upset Crusaders and Cliftonville supporters on Twitter at the weekend. Apparently flag protesters from other parts of Belfast (let’s call them predominantly Blues and Glens supporters) turned up at the away turnstiles to prevent Cliftonville’s majority Catholic support ingress to the ground.

Result: the season’s big game between the two top clubs in the local Premier league gets call off.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere that the target was Cliftonville (currently sitting on a nice buffer of 14 pts and one game in hand over the Blues). Or that Crusaders was just as much a victim of this action as those from the club just up the road. Phillip Murphy in the Huff Po:

The great shame in all of this is the damage it does to both clubs, who provide more for local working-class communities than just about any organisation in their environs. Both clubs provide opportunities to participate in football for men, women and children alike, making them a key component of the North Belfast fabric. The clubs have worked together, fostering strong cross-community relations in recent times, setting an example for the young people of the area. Saturday will sadly however have cost Crusaders thousands of pounds and will possibly have further alienated current and potential supporters of local football. All this, at the hands of a protest beyond the control of football’s powers that be.

Football has in many ways reflected politics, especially those of the working classes in the region. In bygone decades, Northern Ireland’s political instability and football have clashed to devastating effects on the terraces. Times have changed however. The league is now a safe environment, with crowd trouble and sectarianism now confined to rare, isolated incidents. What yesterday demonstrated was a complete indifference to the protesters on the most-part from both fans, who it must be said, handled the pandemonium with impressive dignity in their large numbers. The gesture of some Crusaders fans to walk hand-in-hand with their footballing rivals, unheard of in the poisonous atmosphere of many football rivalries.

More ominously, it’s another signal that this summer is going to be worse than the last. Enter the leadership vacuum (it hasn’t gone away you know)… My good friend and long time commenter on Slugger, Ian Parsley is clear about unionist culpability in backing the flag protests in particular.

But we should not ignore the fact that the political process has been slowly unravelling for a number of years, and not least in north Belfast. The paradox is that however much people cry out for moderation, as Peter Geoghegan put it near the beginning of this crisis: with so much “passionate fury” in the air, the prospects for Northern Ireland’s shrinking middle ground look worryingly bleak.

With the words of Ass Chief Constable Will Kerr telling us from the front page of the Irish News that we should expect the worst for the summer, in the immortal words of Blackadder we’re headed for conflict because…

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